NPR logo
Are Blue Dogs An Endangered Species?
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122316980/122329379" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Are Blue Dogs An Endangered Species?

Politics

Are Blue Dogs An Endangered Species?

Are Blue Dogs An Endangered Species?
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122316980/122329379" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Rep. John Tanner speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in 2007. i

Rep. John Tanner speaks during a 2007 press conference held by members of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition and Rep. Ike Skelton on Capitol Hill. The conference focused on the upcoming National Defense Authorization Bill. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Rep. John Tanner speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in 2007.

Rep. John Tanner speaks during a 2007 press conference held by members of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition and Rep. Ike Skelton on Capitol Hill. The conference focused on the upcoming National Defense Authorization Bill.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The party of the president tends to lose some traction in midyear elections. But the climate for Democrats could be more sour than usual this year.

The 2010 political season opened this week with two prominent Senate Democrats — Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota — deciding not to run for re-election.

In the House, at least four Democrats from swing districts have announced plans to retire. Two of them are from Tennessee, and one of those two is John Tanner.

Tanner Country

Rep. John Tanner's family has farmed in Union City since before the Civil War.

We're driving down a winding country lane in a small West Tennessee town, not far from the Kentucky state line. It's called Walker Tanner road.

"That's my grandfather," Tanner says.

Tanner is a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition — the caucus of fiscally conservative House Democrats. It's been a home to the pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrats who have picked up seats in traditional Republican territory in recent elections.

We drive by the stable of Tennessee walking horses, between fields where the soybeans and corn have been harvested, and stop at a barn flanked by dog pens.

"This is where we keep the quail," Tanner says.

The dogs bark as the quail coo.

The quail stay in the barn until its time for the hunt. Then, they're loaded into crates and taken to a wooded field nearby.

"Then you open the thing and they fly out all over the place," Tanner says. "And then you put the dogs down and the dogs go and find them and point them, and you shoot them."

'Too Liberal And Too Conservative'

Sitting by the fireplace in Quail Haven, his family's rustic, wood-paneled hunting lodge, Tanner says the South is a tough place for incumbent Democrats now — even those of the Blue Dog breed.

"We're too liberal in our home areas and too conservative in Washington," he says. "I mean we get it on both sides, which means I think we're doing something right."

Tanner is retiring after 22 years in the seat once held by Davy Crockett. He would have faced his toughest challenge in years, but was still favored to win re-election.

Tanner says he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. But he also sounds frustrated with the climate in Congress.

"Out of office," he says, "I may actually be able to do more than I actually can trying to pass a bill in this mud fight between Democrats and Republicans that is unrelenting and, in my view, very destructive."

Leaving

The latest blow in that fight came just before Christmas when freshman Blue Dog Parker Griffith of Alabama defected to the GOP.

"Our nation is at a crossroads," Griffith said. "I can no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country, hurts our economy and drives us further and further into debt."

Now Republicans are taking aim at the seats of other Blue Dogs. Not just vulnerable freshmen like Bobby Bright of Alabama or Travis Childers of Mississippi, but also established Democrats like Marion Berry and Vic Snyder of Arkansas.

One of the GOP's best opportunities is in middle Tennessee, where veteran Democrat Bart Gordon is retiring after 26 years. He's a Blue Dog known to buck the party, but he recently fell in line on health care and climate change legislation.

Like Tanner, Gordon says he is leaving for personal reasons rather than to avoid a serious election challenge.

"There're 15 counties in this district and I never lost any one of them," Gordon says. "This is a more difficult environment, but winning and losing didn't play a role in this decision."

An Endangered Species?

Gordon might have held on, but voters here say other Democrats face longer odds.

At a Murfreesboro Chamber of Commerce meeting this week, handyman Brian Hughlett said he is disappointed by the Democratic agenda and Gordon's recent positions.

"This last year I think some mistakes have been made," Hughlett says. "And I'm not real happy with the way things have been going. With him retiring, maybe we can get somebody a little more middle of road in there."

Others suggested Blue Dogs could be an endangered species around here.

"The words conservative Democrat in this area might be an oxymoron," says Martin Porter, who owns a golf shop in Murfreesboro.

Districts Overly Partisan, Tanner Says

Given voter sentiment, Vanderbilt University Political Scientist Bruce Oppenheimer says this election could further polarize Congress.

"In an earlier generation, we saw the gradual disappearance of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats," Oppenheimer says. "And now we're seeing increasingly the disappearance of more moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats."

That's something that troubles Tanner. He blames the divide on the partisan way congressional districts are drawn. By his estimate, only about 88 of the 435 seats in the House are competitive. The rest, he says, are gerrymandered to be determined by party loyalists, which makes it hard to govern.

"In a society like ours," Tanner says, "the middle has to hold for there to be compromise to work out the problems facing us not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans."

It's the very essence of the representative form of government, he says.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.